Impressionism: Origins & Influences
1. Impressionism: Origins, Influences
Introduction: A Complementary group With a Common Approach
Impressionism is not merely a school of landscape painting, nor even the most famous movement in French painting, but primarily a common attitude among several artists towards the basic problems of their art.
They were led to group themselves together in the face of hostile art critics and a diffident public. The various solutions they found, show new laws for colour and light. It is then that the theory - if theory there be - takes shape. Works conform to it either partly or wholly. Even when the means follow similar lines, the end results remain profoundly individualist, and it is only in short periods of working together, in a given place, that a collective look is created. Although the movement defined scientific phases, as in the Divisionist/Pointillist works of Post-Impressionism, it was to be often difficult to distinguish the works of one or another, and entire groups abroad or far away were able to join in without difficulty.
BEST MODERN PAINTING
One is tempted to say about each painter
that he was an Impressionist at one time but not at another, but this
is hardly justifiable. It could mean that any artist at all was at sometime
or other attached to a movement of which he was never a part. And it would
minimise, to the point of disappearance, an ideology for which we none
the less claim to ascribe strict and precise limits. The painters who
practised Impressionism are not very numerous. In each case the whole
of their work must be considered for this can have no significance except
in its cohesion, its projection and its own rhythm. The story of Impressionism
cannot be told by isolating from the whole, periods which alone were to
correspond to rules arbitrarily defined later.
IMPRESSIONISM & PORTRAITS
In the case of landscapes by Turner,
the subject is only the basis for reflection of the light and nothing
is better than some of his masses, which have no density in themselves
and which are in perpetual transformation, such as clouds, smoke, steam
or mist, pierced with impunity by the light which only settles in tiny
particles as in a rainbow. See also: English
Landscape Painting 18th/19th century.
But the real forerunners of Impressionist painters are: Daumier (1808-79) and the painters of sea and water, Eugene Boudin (1824-98) and Jongkind (1819-1891). They also lived through plein-air painting and practised it throughout their lives. While they were able, they encouraged and aided their young colleagues in a very definite manner: Boudin and Jongkind with Claude Monet, and Diaz with Renoir. Sometimes they painted works which were to foreshadow very accurately their successors. But in spite of these likenesses, they remained, on a more modest level, prisoners of their own themes and methods, hemmed in by a description that was literal and sometimes prodigiously complex (Rousseau), always strictly tied by their material and limited by reality.
Also during the 19th century there were two discoveries so important that artists from then onwards could never again paint as they had done before: photography and the formulation of colour laws by Chevreul.
Impact of Photography on Painting
It is in fact the best means of first reducing views of nature to a surface where they assume their proper places. Thus the landscape is reduced to plans and shapes which the artist can take as an irrefutable base on which to set up his system of representation. For him it is a safeguard, a time-saver, a synthetic means of better developing his analysis. The Impressionists were the first to grasp this and took great advantage of it.
In certain cases photographic proofs have been found which served as reference and model for landscape paintings painted later in the open air. It is possible that this practice was much more widespread. After eighty years we can photograph most of the sites painted by the Impressionists and find, despite some superficial modifications, an almost incredible permanency. From this it may be deduced that either the painters achieved a remarkable fidelity of what they saw or that they had recourse to photography as a valuable aid, as a means of seeing better and making progress.
Impact of Laws of Colour
He divided the colours into primaries
- yellow, red and blue - and binaries, those formed of two colours,
orange (red and yellow), green (yellow and blue), violet (red and blue).
A binary colour is lifted up when alongside the primary colour not contained
in it, which is called complementary - orange with blue, green
with red or violet with yellow.
Studying one after another of the seven prismatic colours, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, combined with white, black and grey, Chevreul shows that two strips placed as above are always modified so that each colour tends to take colour from its complementary colour; and, if the two juxtaposed strips are coloured by a common element, whatever its shade, the common element tends to disappear.
Thus the law of simultaneous contrast makes
it possible to see the effect on each coloured object of placing another
coloured object near it. It may be summed up in two points: each colour
tends to give its complementary colour to neighbouring colours, and if
two objects contain a common colour the effect of putting them alongside
one another is to diminish considerably the common element.
What makes for the originality of the Impressionists and results in their group being strictly limited with no possibility of admitting anyone else to it, is this unique fusion of science and freedom. From the time of Neo-Impressionism it was to be quite different. Thus our study will be limited to several individuals of dominant personality, Edouard Manet (1832-83), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Claude Monet (1840-1926); to those who are grouped with them, either individually like Berthe Morisot (1841-95) or, by chance from the studios, the group from the studio Gleyre, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Frederic Bazille (1841-1870), Renoir (1841-1919); and that of the Academie Suisse, Armand Guillamin, and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). There is no minor Impressionist and no name to add to these except possibly that of Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94), Those who took part haphazardly or through the goodwill of Degas in the exhibitions of the group remain absolutely outside it. It is impossible to cite the names of imitators or followers: they would be on an entirely different level.
Reactions to Impressionists
Jules Laforgue, having seen an exhibition of the Impressionists in Germany, gave a definition of them which, although restrictive, seems none the less remarkably prophetic. In his estimation the Impressionist is the painter who uses the sensitiveness of his eye in direct contact with nature to perceive brilliant scenes in the open air, to the point of achieving a sort of instinctive vision unhindered by all the prejudices and convention of his education. With these words, published in his Melanges posthumes in 1903, he joins the sharpest definitions by other great minds. Mallarme spoke of Manet's eye as "new, on an object or persons, steady, pure and abstract", and there is no need to recall the famous remark of Cezanne on Monet: "He was only an eye, but what an eye!" It is certain that Monet's eye had exceptional excitability. But what Laforgue certainly saw was that this development of a sense helped better to serve a mental attitude. Henceforward Impressionism is able to go beyond the traditional conventions of the art of painting-drawing, painting, studio lighting: it suggests shapes and distances by vibration and colour contrasts; it considers the subject only in its luminous atmosphere and in the changes of lighting. A landscape bathed in light is made up of a thousand vibrant clashes, of prismatic decompositions, of irregular strokes which from a distance melt with one another and create life. "The Impressionist eye", Laforgue concludes, "is the most advanced eye in human evolution, that which up to now has seized upon and rendered the most complicated nuances known." But what is important is that the means permit of a closer approach to the heart of nature. The Impressionists are certainly the heirs to that sensitiveness, that belief in progress and a better world that the 19th century inherited from Rousseau. Each of the Impressionists could have uttered himself the famous words of Constable, "I have never seen anything ugly." It is finally incompatible with realism and naturalism defined by Zola. And that is why the latter, remaining shackled by his heavy formulas, was to end up by breaking all contact with the painters who had been his friends when he was a youth.
Impressionism should evoke for us an intimate participation in worldly life. Pantheism, unanism and pluralism are hardly strangers to it. It becomes a fusion of the vegetable kingdoms and an extension to cosmic proportions of their peculiarities. In the dark and austere forests of Barbizon it blossoms out suddenly like flowers blooming; nature is transformed into intangible particles, density melts into luminous blotches. The same coloured magic surrounds objects and figures whose skin is coloured by other reflections. Water lends itself to all the reflections.
D'Ors wrote about Monet completely filling
five or six canvases and changing them every half-hour to reproduce the
changes in the Cathedral at Rouen (or in haystacks) and the transitory,
Read about Impressionism's greatest supporter: Paul Durand-Ruel.
NEXT: (2) Early History of the Impressionists.
For more about plein-air painting, see: Art Encyclopedia.